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KING v. NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION

United States District Court, S.D. New York


July 21, 2004.

MARTIN LUTHER KING' JR. H.S. PARENTS Sandra Stevens, Demetria Palafox, Delois Blakely, Dean Loren, FOR THE SPECIAL EDUCATION, TITLE 1 AND CIVIL RIGHTS OF MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. H.S. STUDENTS, Watasha Stevens, Randy Palafox, individually and on behalf of all others similarly situated Plaintiffs,
v.
NEW YORK CITY DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION, MAYOR MIKE BLOOMBERG, CHANCELLOR JOEL KLEIN, BURTON SACKS, NEIL HARWAYNE, MR. WOO, RONALD WELLS, PRINCIPAL OF MARTIN LUTHER KING HIGH SCHOOL, BOARD OF EDUCATION OF THE CITY OF NEW YORK, RUDOLPH F. CREW, SCHOOL'S CHANCELLOR, HAROLD O. LEVY, SCHOOL'S CHANCELLOR, STEPHANIE D'AMORE FERRANDINO, PRINCIPAL OF MARTIN LUTHER KING JR. HIGH SCHOOL, WELTON SAWYER, MANHATTAN SUPERINTENDENT, AND GRANGER B. WARD, MANHATTAN SUPERINTENDENT, Defendants.

The opinion of the court was delivered by: MICHAEL MUKASEY, Chief Judge, District

OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiffs, six individuals appearing pro se, have sued numerous state and city officials and agencies involved in the oversight and governance of Martin Luther King Junior High School ("MLK"), alleging violations of the U.S. Constitution and various federal and state statutes.*fn1 Defendants Harold O. Levy, the Board of Education of the City of New York, and the City of New York (the "moving defendants") have moved to dismiss the Second Amended Complaint and Class Action ("Complaint") for failure to satisfy the "short and plain statement" requirement under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a). Plaintiffs have cross-moved for an order instructing that defendants' papers be deemed an answer with a general denial" and that parties commence discovery; for joinder and consolidation of the case with two other actions pending in the Southern and Eastern Districts of New York;*fn2 and for a preliminary injunction "to stabilize, rehabilitate and protect [MLK] students and parents." (Plaintiffs' Notice of Opposition and Cross-Motion for Joinder, Preliminary Injunction and Pro Hac Vice Admittance at 1)*fn3 For the reasons stated below, the moving defendants' motion is granted and the Complaint dismissed as to all defendants named therein, and plaintiffs' cross-motion is denied in its entirety.

I.

  To the extent relevant here, Rule 8(a) states that a complaint must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). As explained by the Second Circuit:

The statement should be plain because the principal function of pleadings under the Federal Rules is to give the adverse party fair notice of the claim asserted so as to enable him to answer and prepare for trial. . . . The statement should be short because "unnecessary prolixity in a pleading places an unjustified burden on the court and the party who must respond to it because they are forced to select the relevant material from a mass of verbiage."
Salahuddin v. Cuomo, 861 F.2d 40, 42 (2d Cir. 1988) (citations omitted). See also 2A Moore's Federal Practice ¶ 8.13, at 8-58 (2d ed. 1994) ("The function of pleadings under the Federal Rules is to give fair notice of the claim asserted. Fair notice is that which will enable the adverse party to answer and prepare for trial, allow the application of res judicata, and identify the nature of the case so it may be assigned the proper form of trial."). When a complaint is not short and plain, the court has the power, on motion or sua sponte, to strike any portions that are redundant or immaterial, or to dismiss the complaint. See Salahuddin, 861 F.2d at 42. "Dismissal, however, is usually reserved for those cases in which the complaint is so confused, ambiguous, vague or otherwise unintelligible that its true substance, if any, is well disguised." Id. at 42 (citation omitted). See also Zdziebloski v. Town of East Greenbush, N.Y., 101 F. Supp.2d 70, 72 (N.D.N.Y. 2000) ("A dismissal of a complaint pursuant to Rule 8(a) is appropriate when the complaint departs so far from the `short and plain' criteria that it undermines the interests of justice, by making it unnecessarily difficult for other parties and the court to discern the claims the plaintiff intends to set forth, and the factual bases underlying those claims.").

  Here, the Complaint is neither short nor plain. It runs nearly 60 pages and comprises 597 numbered paragraphs, many containing sub-paragraphs, and still more unnumbered paragraphs.*fn4 Prolixity aside, the Complaint is largely incoherent. The essence of the Complaint appears to be that defendants facilitated or tolerated violations in the operation of a program for special education students at MLK. It purports to allege 10 different claims for relief under the U.S. Constitution and various federal and state statutes. (Compl. ¶¶ 528-597) However, the vast majority of the Complaint is a litany of vague and conclusory allegations whose relevance to the asserted claims is uncertain. To cite just one example, paragraphs 145 to 329 of the Complaint describe a sexual relationship between a student enrolled in an after-school program at MLK and a teacher in the program, but how those allegations relate, if at all, to plaintiffs' claims for relief is opaque. That plaintiffs eschew a narrative presentation, favoring instead a slapdash recital of unconnected facts, compounds the confusion. In short, while plaintiffs indisputably allege a profusion of facts, Rule 8(a) requires that the facts tell a coherent story; plaintiffs' chaotic presentation is in this respect wholly inadequate. A representative sample of the conclusory rhetoric and disjointed allegations that pervade the Complaint is contained in the Appendix below.

  For the reasons described above, the Complaint fails to place defendants on fair notice of the claims asserted against them. Forcing defendants to answer the Complaint "`would fly in the face of the very purposes for which Rule 8 exists, [by placing] an unjustified burden on the court and the [defendants] who must respond to it because they are forced to select the relevant material from a mass of verbiage.'" Roberto's Fruit Market, Inc. v. Schaffer, 13 F. Supp.2d 390, 395 (E.D.N.Y. 1998) (citation omitted) (alteration in Schaffer). Dismissal of the Complaint is thus plainly warranted. See Salahuddin, 861 F.2d at 43 (district court was within the bounds of discretion to strike or dismiss complaint that spanned 15 single-spaced pages and contained "surfeit of detail"); Prezzi v. Schelter, 469 F.2d 691, 692 (2d Cir. 1972) (leave to amend denied where claim was "a labyrinthian prolixity of unrelated and vituperative charges that defied comprehension"); Iwachiw v. NYC Bd. of Elections, 273 F. Supp.2d 224, 227 (E.D.N.Y. 2003) (dismissing complaint that was "hopelessly unintelligible"). Because the infirmities described above permeate the entire Complaint, dismissal is granted also as to claims against defendants who have not yet filed an appearance in this action.*fn5 In light of this ruling, plaintiffs' cross-motions for an order instructing that defendants' papers be deemed an answer with a general denial, for joinder and consolidation, and for a preliminary injunction are denied.

  In dismissing the Complaint, I am mindful that plaintiffs are proceeding pro se and thus that their submissions should be held "to `less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers.'" Hughes v. Rowe, 449 U.S. 5, 9 (1980) (per curiam) (quoting Haines v. Kerner, 404 U.S. 519, 520 (1972)). However, plaintiffs' pro se status does not excuse their failure to satisfy the minimal requirements of Rule 8(a). See Salahuddin, 861 F.2d at 42 (affirming dismissal of complaint filed by plaintiff pro se under Rule 8(a)); Traguth v. Zuck, 710 F.2d 90, 94 (2d Cir. 1983) (pro se status "does not exempt a party from compliance with relevant rules of procedural and substantive law").

  When a district court "dismisses [a] complaint for failure to comply with Rule 8, it should generally give the plaintiff leave to amend." Simmons v. Abruzzo, 49 F.3d 83, 86 (2d Cir. 1995). Here, however, because plaintiffs have amended their complaint twice already and their most recent pleading fails to come close to satisfying Rule 8(a)'s "short and plain" requirement, the Complaint is dismissed and leave to replead is denied. For the reasons stated above, the moving defendants' motion is granted and the Complaint dismissed as to all defendants, and plaintiffs' cross-motion is denied in its entirety.

  SO ORDERED. APPENDIX

  The following is a representative segment from the actual Background" section of the Complaint:

  67. MLK has "Target Assistance" status in regard to Title 1 Funding programs.

  68. MLK has, for each year since Fall of 1995 to Spring of 2002, classified a minimum of 2,000 of its students as Title 1.

  69. The amount of funding for said years reaching students is more on the equivalent 500 students.

  70. In addition, approximately 300 students are designated for special education for said years.

  71. Only 25% of the funding for special education reached said special ed students.

  72. The inappropriate funding and failure to deliver related services results from the defendants' intentional failures and willingness to comply with statutory and regulatory mandates set forth above.

  73(a). Said acts began in and around 1995 under Superintendent Granger B. Ward and Principal Stephanie D'Amore Ferrandino and was coordinated by John Ferrandino, Director, Division of High Schools.

  73(b). Said acts involved programs supervised by Burt Sacks, funded under the supervision of Neil Harwayne and audited under the supervision of Mr. Woo.

  73(c). Said acts involved program services not rendered but paid for and without an appropriate audit to guarantee services were provided. 74. Said acts continued under Chancellor Crew with his full knowledge.

  75. Crew was notified repeatedly of said acts by Parents as was State and Federal Officials.

  76. Said acts continued under Chancellor Levy with his full knowledge.

  77. Levy was notified repeatedly of said acts by Parents as was State and Federal Officials.

  78. Said acts were continued under Superintendent Welton Sawyer and Principal Wells.

  79. During the period of Crew and Levy, Kim Murrell knowingly acted with the above mentioned persons to misappropriate funding and obstruct related services given to said Student Plaintiffs.

  80. During the period of Crew and Levy, Deborah Walker knowingly acted with the above mentioned persons to misappropriate funding and obstruct related services given to said Student Plaintiffs.

  81. Said acts continued under Chancellor Klein with his full knowledge.

  82. Klein was notified repeatedly of said acts by Parents as was State and Federal Officials.

  83. On information and belief, of the said 300 disabled students who attend class MLK about 240 or about 80% are assigned to self-contained special classes comprised entirely of students with disabilities or thought of as having disabilities.

  84. 66% of the MLK educated special education students are denied meaningful opportunities to interact with the regular school population. 85. 80% of MLK's special education population is being educated in settings isolated from the general school population for said period.

  86. Of the said 300 students classified as "emotionally disturbed" by MLK, approximately 50% are African American; 48% have Hispanic descent.

  87. City of New York's general school population is comprised as follows: 30% African American, 45% Hispanic and 30% white.

  88. AT MLK, there are insufficient numbers of classrooms, resource rooms.

  89. Approximately 25% or more of the teachers teaching in special education settings were not certified for special education, speech and language.

  90. 30% of the MLK teachers employed for instruction were uncertified.

  91. Said teachers were reported as being in compliance with State standards by Ward and D'Amore then Sawyers and Wells.

  92. 75% of the teachers reported as being licensed with a Masters Degree from 1995 to 1999 did not have a Masters.

  93. Crew and Levy had full knowledge of the teachers status.

  94. Said students are waiting to have their IEPs updated.

  95. The exact number of such students is not known to plaintiffs but should be known to defendants.

  96. The exact number of teachers who were misstated as being licensed with Masters or having appropriate licenses for the area being taught is not known to plaintiffs but should be known to defendants. 97. Most MLK school-aged students have been approved for Title 1, PCEN and special education services, but are waiting to receive such services.

  98. The majority of the disabled students have been waiting to be placed well in excess of the state-mandated period of 30 school days from the date such services are approved by the CSE.

  99. The exact number of such students is not known to plaintiffs but should be known to defendants.

  100. Representatives of the State Education Department are aware that the Board of Education failed to meet the funding mandates and mandated timelines for evaluation and provision of services that meet the students' needs for special education and related.

  101. Despite awareness of these failures, the State Education Department has not compelled the Board of Education to comply with the application statutory requirements.

  102. All Student Plaintiffs were denied 80% of their full allotments of Title 1 and PCEN funding and their respective special education funding.

  103. Defendants have when sued in the past, have given perjured statements concerning the aforesaid claims.

  104. Defendants have also conducted a pattern and practice of discrimination in order to carry out the aforesaid acts of mis-education.

  105. Student Plaintiffs were often taught by teachers out of their licensed areas (if they had licenses at all).

  106. In some cases, Student Plaintiffs were left alone in their classrooms without assigned teachers. 107. Moreover, rapid turnover of teachers occurred sometimes 3-4 times a year.

  108. Many Student Plaintiffs' related services were contracted out to Board of Education independent contractors and said services were not provided.

  109. Some of Student Plaintiffs were `warehoused' in study halls instead of properly scheduled for classes necessary for matriculation.

  (Compl. ¶¶ 67-109).


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